Why Does the Pot Call the Kettle Black?

(Last Updated On: May 7, 2023)

If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with a hypocrite, you may have felt like the other person was the pot calling the kettle black. Honestly, you probably feel that way any time a public figure says… just about anything ever. But why exactly does the pot call the kettle black? When did we start using the phrase?

The Real Hypocrites Were the Friends We Made Along the Way

Depending on the context in which it is used, the pot calling the kettle black is its own form of hypocrisy. In the common lexicon, you’re saying an accusation or argument is invalid because the accuser has the same flaw they are calling out. In this sense, the expression is a common example of projection, especially when it’s used to deflect a claim against oneself specifically. 

It’s a common logical fallacy, of the same breed as “whataboutism.” You know, like when you tell your roommate they need to clean their dishes and instead they say “what about your laundry chair?” Except your laundry chair is in your room and their dishes are in the common space and also it’s not the point. You’ll also see whataboutism used a lot in politics; politicians and talking heads love to invoke “what about” as a way to invalidate something someone else is saying. If you look for it you’ll just see it everywhere and it will probably start to annoy the heck out of you. The point of whataboutism and the projective use of the pot calling the kettle black is to absolve oneself of guilt by attacking the accuser. Just because both of you are guilty doesn’t mean you’re not, obviously. 

So abstractly, that’s why the pot calls the kettle black. It doesn’t want to acknowledge that it’s also covered in soot.

Also, crabs

But you probably came here because you were looking for a linguistic origin. Idioms about highlighting hypocrisy aren’t particularly novel, and if you haven’t heard about pots and kettles calling each other black, you might be familiar with the version that has to do with crabs. Specifically the snake and the crab.

The snake and the crab dates back to the late 6th or early 5th centuries BCE, first recorded as a drinking song. Allegedly it went like this:

“The crab spoke thus,

seizing the snake in its claws,

‘One’s comrade should be straight

and not think crooked thoughts.’”

The point being that the crab didn’t really have a right to criticize the snake, for both crabs and snakes don’t really move straight. Crabs have to walk sideways and snakes kind of zigzag around and all that. 

Later this would become one of Aesop’s Fables, and the story held that the snake and crab used to be friends. By this point, the central thesis had shifted from “the pot calling the kettle black” to “don’t be duplicitous to your friends.” You might be further familiar with another tale, but instead it’s about two crabs; a mother and child. The mother tells her child that they should always walk straight, and the child retorts that the mother should demonstrate. Obviously, this doesn’t go well for an animal that can only walk sideways. 

Don Quixote

Honestly, we kind of just wanted an excuse to talk about crabs. The first written record (in English) of “the pot calling the kettle black” dates back to 1620. Specifically in Thomas Shelton’s English translation of Don Quixote. 

In it, Don Quixote responds to criticism from his servant with “you are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle.” Perhaps more fun is England’s version, which first appeared in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina (1639). It reads “the pot calls the pan burnt-arse.” 

See if you know your miscellaneous idioms here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.